The Monster Under The Bed
For years long before the 21st century, children’s books have exhibited a need to be exciting, educational; often morally insightful and, above all, engaging. This engagement came previously in the form of large, simple fonts and vivid pictures depicting the scene that is being read – the simple storybook format of which we are all familiar where children’s love of reading and the age-old tradition of the bedtime story began. But what of the most recent breed of children’s (and other) books? The unknown beast that publishing is constantly striving to perfect: the ebook and the book app. Publishers fear that the monster of digital publishing will spell an end to the traditional children’s storybook and bedtime stories.
Over the past three years the ebook has completely modified the publishing industry and the way that it operates, as well as the way that people read and enjoy books. Both a complement and a challenger to the physical book, it would appear that publishers think the ebook cannot stand to be simply a digitised version of children’s literature in today’s world of the app, but must meet children’s expectations of so much more from their digital learning.
The market demands a heightened level of interactivity and enjoyment that far exceeds the capabilities of the paperback all within a greatly discounted price bracket; ebooks fulfil this demand through games, apps and fully interactive stories. But does this relatively new interactivity truly stand up against the power of the traditional bedtime story? Whilst there is a space for apps in the children’s book market, is it currently being well received or can it simply not compare to the magic of turning a page whilst your little one marvels at the pictures before them?
Embracing The Beast
One publisher that has taken on the challenge of interactivity wholly and completely is London-based business Nosy Crow. The multi-award winning company founded in 2011 by Kate Wilson – named FutureBook’s Most Inspiring Digital Publishing Person – publishes commercial fiction and non-fiction children’s literature across all three formats of paperback, ebook and app. Their aim is to be child-focused, parent-friendly and above all to be creators of literature that encourages children to read.
The constantly growing business embodies the immediacy and novelty of digital publishing throughout its ethos; not only are their books at the height of fresh experimentation, but their recruitment process, too, aims to both discover and showcase new and existing talent in all forms of creativity. Entirely self-sufficient, they produce all content with the help of both new and established authors, illustrators, paper-engineers and designers in the making of their reading material both digital and physical.
Whilst their literature across formats produces reading for children 0-14, their apps are made for children between 2 and 7 years old and they expressly state that the apps they produce are highly interactive and not simply books ‘squashed onto screens’ or ‘the most boring thing a child can do on a touch screen.’
However it cannot go unnoticed that, in all of their digital exploration, Nosy Crow do not deal exclusively in digital literature but produce a large majority of their products as physical books.
It would seem that no matter how intriguing the app and ebook may be, even the most digitally inclined of publishers cannot overwrite the novelty still present in traditional reading. Perhaps the world is just not quite ready to fully accept the app into its literary family.
A Friendly Foe?
Although not ever likely dominate children’s recreational reading, there is evidence to suggest a turn towards the educational benefits of the book app. Whilst it is unlikely ever to become typical of children’s learning, the app takes the monotony of a generic ebook and completely revolutionises reading for children.
Now a tap of the screen does not just turn the page but could cause Alice to drink the potion or the apple to joyfully pronounce and phonetically spell ‘A-P-P-L-E’. Children are given opportunity to engage with the story in a way never before possible; they can manipulate it to their own liking, often with various outcomes dependent on their choices. The days of the sound book whose battery slowly goes flat until every sound becomes an obscured little mew are gone – sounds, sights and games await the reader of the app.
There is no limit to the interactivity that an app can provide to a child during learning – although this could often be argued to be in some cases overkill that distracts from, rather than complements, the story. There is even evidence to support the educational benefits of book apps within schools with an estimated ‘21.4% of all pupil-facing computers to be tablets’ by 2015 (BESA). Not simply a recreational tool, schools are working to invest in ipads, ebooks and apps for educational uses across all disciplines.
However, even with this educational premise and novelty, the app still remains a matter of specialised interest to the general market. It would appear that no amount of varied character voices and interaction can match the precious moments spent giving a dramatic reading of Green Eggs and Ham to an audience of one.
Better The Monster You Know
That is not to say that there is no success in book apps: a study by dotMobi in 2014 shows that mobile subscriptions alone saturate ‘equivalent to 95.5 percent of the world population’ with smartphones taking up an estimated 15.95 percent of that figure – over 1 billion people. Figures like this without even considering tablets and other devices suggest that there is most definitely a lucrative market for the ebook and book app.
However, book apps face a struggle to be successful in their visibility and notoriety, or lack thereof. Success in this is field is most often born of strong characterisation and great writing rather than the amount of bells and whistles available on the app itself. Paula from AME suggests that ‘the bestselling apps are Disney, Dora and Dr. Seuss because people are comfortable with the quality.’
Perhaps it is for this reason that Nosy Crow have opted to produce apps that support their ebook and physical book sales instead of flying solo with just the book app. In publishing new and untold stories, Nosy Crow risks going under the radar but appears to recognise the importance of its stories being known and recognisable to increase app sales.
It would seem that children are reading book apps not exclusively because of their novelty and interactivity but because of their affiliation with pre-existing characters and authors that both parents and children know and enjoy.
A look on Amazon’s best selling children’s book apps for Android confirms this with well known stories like The Three Little Pigs and The Three Billy Goats Gruff riding high in the ranks among contemporary well known characters linked to films Madagascar and How To Train Your Dragon. A trend furthered still in the Education section of Apple’s App store where two traditional stories in interactive pop-up book format rank within the top ten best sellers – Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood. The love of these characters came not from the app but our old faithful storybook.
But The Beast Is Benign
We live in the age of the amateur where all can publish and all can be read, the digitisation of literature has seen ebooks accumulate 30% of all books sales in 2014 and this is set to further increase. However, statistics show that it is parents, grandparents and relatives purchasing most children’s books. The storybook is not yet at threat of being overthrown by the book app thanks to parents sharing with their children the way of reading that they themselves know – a book of pages you can touch rather than scenes that can be swiped appears to be far more appealing to the older generation when buying for their children. In a world of ever-changing technology where publishing pushes to be at the forefront of development, the bedtime story has not yet been conquered by a digital screen. Centuries of literature printed on physical paper has ingrained within our culture a true love and passion for physical books that the app will take many more years to achieve.